When a friend sent me the details of a poll conducted on a darknet site run by and for paedophiles I was reminded of the following joke:
“What is the number one cause of paedophilia?”
The results of this poll suggest that this may be less of a Joke and more of a Statement of Fact, depending on whether by ‘sexy’ one means “provoking sexual interest” or “feeling sexually aroused or sexually active”.
[This post is long – 2612 words – click here for a tl;dr version]
The introduction to the poll reads as follows:
“Did you have sexual experiences as a child? Were they with other children or with adults, or both?
I’m hoping this poll will address the “children-who’ve-been-‘abused’-grow-up-to-be-paedophiles” concept.
As we’re nearly all paedos here it might be interesting to see how many of us did have significant sexual experiences as children and how many of those were with adults.”
A total of 81 respondents replied as follows:
10 (12.3%) – no
9 (11.1%) – not really (i.e. very mild experiences that hardly qualify as ‘sexual’ – such as ‘looking’, kissing, cuddling…)
12 (14.8%) – yes, but only with myself
37 (45.7%) – yes, with other children
2 (2.5%) – yes, with (an) adult(s)
11 (13.6%) – yes, with both (an) adult(s) and children
The data can be better visualised as a pie chart (click on image for full-size version):
But before we look at what these results tell us, first let us consider some problems and biases with this poll.
evaluating the poll
It’d be great if a statistician reading this could help out. It strikes me that 81 respondents is a small sample, though large enough to give some significant results, especially where there are large differences in the responses to certain variables.
The sample was clearly not a random one. Here we encounter a problem with any research into a stigmatised population. Is it even possible, given the secrecy we have to live with, to get a random sample of paedophiles?
The most accessible, and therefore populous and most used, sample available to researchers is prisoners or convicted offenders. Findings from research using such a population are extremely problematic because:
i – the possibility of parole for a prisoner is usually dependent on them adopting and internalising the hegemonic narratives round child sexuality and child-adult sexual interactions promulgated by their counselors and/or therapists. So answers given in such surveys will tend to drift strongly towards confirming the dominant narrative.
ii – most men in prison for sexual offenses against children are not, in fact, paedophiles, but are men who find themselves depressed, intoxicated, tired or otherwise disoriented, and are ‘surprised’ by an unfamiliar desire which they have not previously had to learn to control; or are ‘opportunistic’ offenders who direct their adult sexuality at whatever target is available.
iii – offenders and prisoner populations have their own statistical biases: weaker impulse control, disrupted childhoods and life circumstances, increased incidence of mental problems, lower IQ – all of which make the sample non-representative of the whole population of paedophiles.
What are the likely biases associated with using a darknet paedophile forum for such a poll?
i – the fact that this site is on the darknet means that most of its members will have stumbled upon it whilst searching and viewing child pornography (though the site in question itself is strictly image- and video-free). This probably ensures that the respondents are true, self-identifying paedophiles.
ii – the fact that the site is a text-only site and exclusively in English will add the bias that the respondents will be anglophone. If the sample includes respondents for whom English is not the first language this could raise the average level of education of the sample.
iii – the site promotes a supportive ethos: it does not allow abusive comments, and debates and discussions have to be conducted respectfully. More importantly it promotes an ethical practice of paedophilia: respect and care for children is central to the site’s ethos. Whilst far from ‘Virtuous‘ in its stance it does generally counsel self-restraint in close relationships with children. This will eliminate from the sample paedophiles who are into hurtcore pornography or who are disrespectful of children in other ways.
An inherent bias in surveys that draw on remembered events is that the events recorded in the poll are, by definition, ‘memorable’. Non-memorable events have been forgotten and therefore do not figure in this poll. This will bias the poll towards more intense and spectacular sexual events that took place in later childhood, and away from events which were ‘mild’ and/or which happened in early childhood or infancy.
The poll’s question asks “Did you have sexual experiences as a child? Were they with other children or with adults, or both?“. However, nowhere is ‘child’ defined. ‘Child’ could be interpreted as meaning any of the following:
i – a prepubescent
ii – an adolescent or younger
iii – someone below the age of consent
For a poll interested in determining the validity of the idea that “children who’ve been ‘abused’ grow up to be paedophiles” this could be a very significant problem since popular thinking behind this assertion generally assumes that the ‘younger the child, the worse the abuse‘ and ‘the worse the abuse, the more significant the effect on the child once grown up‘. How many of the respondents who chose one of the ‘yes’ options in this poll were thinking of experiences they had during adolescence?
I suspect that hebephiles would be more likely to consider sexual experiences during adolescence as belonging to ‘childhood’, whereas true ‘paedophiles’ (whose sexual interests don’t extend beyond puberty), would be more likely to interpret ‘childhood sexual experiences’ as meaning those had as a prepubescent. But in the end we don’t know: and thus the validity of the poll is compromised. I will return to this question further on.
interpreting the data
For clarity let me give each group an abbreviated label:
n: 10 (12.3%) – no
nr: 09 (11.1%) – not really (i.e. very mild experiences that hardly qualify as ‘sexual’ – such as ‘looking’, kissing, cuddling…)
ym: 12 (14.8%) – yes, but only with myself
yc: 37 (45.7%) – yes, with other children
ya: 02 (2.5%) – yes, with (an) adult(s)
yac: 11 (13.6%) – yes, with both (an) adult(s) and children
Two things about this poll that leap out at me:
i – only 16.1 % (ya + yac) of respondents had any sexual contact with adults during their childhood; only 2.5% (ya) conform to the stereotype of ‘lone innocent child being abused by an adult’, the other 13.6% (yac) also engaging in sexual activities with their peers, acts which were presumably consensual and motivated by desire and pleasure, and which society would have presumably grudgingly tolerated as ‘play’ and ‘exploration’.
ii – Depending on how we collate the data 74.1 % (ym + yc + yac) of respondents had experiences of child sexuality during their own childhood. This figure could be raised to as much as 85.2% if we also include those respondents who polled ‘not really’ (ym + yc + yac + nr).
60.5% (ym + yc) to 71.6% (ym + yc + nr) of respondents had some sort of sexual experience independent of any adult involvement, though this may be more depending on whether those experiences recorded under “yes, with both (an) adult(s) and children” refer to discrete experiences (e.g. someone who had sex with an adult in 1997 and with a peer in 2001) or (an) encounter(s) in which both an adult and other children participated.
These statistics suggest two possible hypotheses:
i – that childhood sexual experiences with adults don’t predispose a child to becoming a paedophile when s/he grows up;
ii – that what does predispose someone to becoming a paedophile when s/he grows up are childhood experiences of child sexuality (whether of their own or that of other children). Another way of putting it might be that an early awareness of the sexual nature of children predisposes that person, once grown up, to respond to children as sexual beings.
The fact that the poll does not give a definition of ‘childhood’ means that what validity remains in the poll can only further militate against the idea that children who’ve been ‘abused’ grow up to be paedophiles. This is because if a significant amount of the sexual activity reported in this poll was in fact during adolescence rather than prepubescence this means that the proportion of respondents who had sexual interactions with adults when they were children can only have, at best, stayed the same or, more likely, decreased.
However the ‘swing’ to this ’roundabout’ of this adolescent/child ambiguity is that it weakens the assertion that paedophiles are people who have learnt from their childhood (viz prepubescent) sexual experiences that children are sexual beings, since it is likely that some of the child-centered incidents reported in fact took place during adolescence.
How do the results of this poll compare to similar surveys of the general population of adults?
re hypothesis i – that childhood sexual experiences with adults don’t predispose a child to becoming a paedophile when s/he grows up:
To answer this question I’ve turned to statistics put out by the NSPCC – therefore the following will be strictly relevant to the UK only. It also has to be kept in mind that the NSPCC could be accused on jumping on the bandwagon of the Child Abuse Industry – and that this may render its statistic unreliable,even giving them a financial interest in inflating figures and promoting hysteria.
On this page they prominently assert that “ in the UK have been sexually abused” and cite as their source “Radford, L. et al (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today“. The relevant data supporting this statistic can be found on pp117:
“Coerced sexual acts under age 16 declined from 6.8 per cent in 1998–9 to 5 per cent in 2009”
Which suggests that their ‘1 in 20’ statistic is not useful for our purposes – it being heavily weighted by statistics concerned with the experiences of adolescents.
The following table on pp8 is more useful (click on image for full-size version):
The statistics I have highlighted suggest that about 0.5% of children aged 11 and under, and 5.3% of children aged 17 and under, experience ‘contact sexual abuse’ ‘as defined by the criminal law at some point in their childhood’ (which we can treat as being equivalent to paedo-poll’s ‘sexual experiences with an adult‘, given that the NSPCC consider all and any child-adult sensual intimacy as ‘abuse’).
re hypothesis ii – that what does predispose someone to becoming a paedophile when s/he grows up are childhood experiences of child sexuality (whether of their own or that of other children):
I have to confess to having struggled to find any useful statistics for this (the above NSPCC report touches on the issue on pages 9 and 120 but in a manner that doesn’t leave us any the wiser). Every result in Google searches for “childhood sexual experience prevalence” has the word ‘sexual’ followed immediately with ‘abuse’ or some other such boo word. It seems that some questions are no longer ask-able, and some thoughts are being made increasingly unthinkable…
If any reader can lay his/her hand on such statistics or point me in the right direction I’d be very grateful indeed.
What I have found is a similar frustration from authors such as Judith Levine, who in her classic “Harmful to Minors” points out “the paucity of empirical data” regarding what “sexual behavior is normative in children” (pp55).
To myself, who had a disappointingly sex-free childhood (as did just about everybody else I’ve known well enough to discuss such matters with), the idea that possibly three-quarters to five-sixths of the general population have some kind of memorable prepubescent sexual experience (or ‘experiences’) with either another child, other children or alone, seems hard to believe. My impression is that for the general population this figure would be much, much lower indeed.
The following extract from from “Normative Sexual Behavior in Children: A Contemporary Sample.” (Friedrich, Fisher, Broughton, Houston, Shafran) offers us an insight:
“Retrospective self-reports have also been used to understand normal sexual behavior. Lamb and Coakley [in “Normal” childhood sexual play in games: differentiating play from abuse.” (1993)] interviewed female undergraduates about their recollection of having participated in sexual play as a child (mean age = 7.5 years, standard deviation = 2.0). Of particular relevance to research with the CSBI is the fact that 14% reported kissing another child, 26% reported exposing themselves, 15% reported genital touching while clothed, 17% reported unclothed genital touching, 6% reported using objects in or around genitals, and 4% reported oral-genital contact. (For some of the above behaviors, parents reported an even higher frequency on the CSBI, ie, 38.4% of parents reported their child had touched their genitals in the previous 6 months. This would suggest that for some behaviors, parents may be more valid reporters, particularly if rating behaviors contemporaneously.) The more often the sexual games involved a cross-gender experience, the more likely the game was perceived as manipulative or coercive”
The statistics don’t give us anything definitive to work with since, for example, we don’t know to what extent it’s the same kids doing the ‘kissing’ as are doing the ‘exposing themselves’. But what is clear is that even if we take the maximum statistic reported (“parents reported their child had touched their genitals in the previous 6 months“) the percentage is still only 38.4% for this very mild sexual activity (though it’s not clear whether by ‘their’ they mean the parent or the child) – way below the 74.1 % to 85.2% of respondents who had child-centered childhood sexual experiences of some sort in the paedophile site poll.
It appears that:
i – there’s a correlation between having memorable experiences of child sexuality during childhood and growing up to have paedophilic desires.
ii- That the “children who’ve been ‘abused’ grow up to be paedophiles” hypothesis can only explain, at very best, 15% of instances of paedophilia in the poll.
Add to this the fact that childhood sexual ‘abuse’ correlates positively to nearly all other categories of crime – not just sexual offenses. This suggests that there is an unseen variable operating – that childhood sexual ‘abuse’ is merely one in many factors that tend to constitute a dysfunctional family and social background – which can lead to lower impulse control, reduced life-opportunities and other factors that predispose an adult to offending behaviour.
Of course ‘correlation’ doesn’t equal ‘causation’. Maybe those people who had memorable sexual encounters as children are people who are just more sexual, or the childhood encounters could be a sign that they already felt an unusually strong sexual interest in children, even when they were children themselves.
However there is a certain simple logic to the idea that those adults who know from personal experience that children are sexual beings will be informed with that knowledge and experience as they grow up, and may be more resistant to Society’s anti-child-sexuality hegemonic ideas, and thus be predisposed to paedophilia.
But this raises a more profound issue which subverts the whole quest for a ’cause for paedophilia’: shouldn’t we really be considering why people are not paedophiles? Why exactly society has failed to close down in some of us what (I suspect) is a capacity natural in all mammals to express love for children through sensual, or even sexual, contact?
“Freud claimed that humans are born bisexual. He assumes that children are sexual, but i think they haven’t learned the meaning of the artificial demarcation line located around the belly button. They aren’t sexual, but just enjoying bodily pleasure. Some animals aren’t homosexual, they are just not picky with whom they enjoy pleasure. Sometimes, things are not caused, but rather not prevented.”
So “what is the number one cause of paedophilia?”
Whilst there’s no doubt that ‘sexy kids’ (if by ‘sexy’ we mean “provoking sexual interest“) maintain us as paedophiles, it may well be that ‘sexy kids’ (if by ‘sexy’ we mean ‘sexually active’ or ‘experiencing sexual feelings’) are what also made us paedophiles in the first place.